Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., gives a victory speech with his wife Lisa Heck, right, after defeating Erin Bilbray to keep his seat in Congress Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Las Vegas.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., gives a victory speech with his wife Lisa Heck, right, after defeating Erin Bilbray to keep his seat in Congress Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Las Vegas. John Locher/AP

Joe Heck, GOP One-Star General, Running for Reid’s Senate Seat

The Nevada congressman kicked off his campaign for Senate in 2016 on Monday.

It took Rep. Joe Heck three months to go from “no” to his announcement Monday that he’s running to replace retiring Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid as U.S. senator from Nevada in 2016. And rather than emphasizing his rank as an Army Reserve brigadier general or his experience on key House defense committees, the Republican eschewed the fire-and-brimstone favored by GOP presidential candidates and instead used his service as a military physician to sell himself to voters as “a healer.”

“Whether it’s serving over 20 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, working the nightshift as an ER doctor or fighting for Nevadans in Washington, I am proud to have spent my life helping others,” Heck said in a statement sent to Defense One.

Heck has been called to active duty three times over two decades, including the 2008 deployment to Iraq that he highlighted in a video announcing his run. He ran the emergency section of a combat support hospital, handling battlefield trauma cases.

“I know the horrors of war, because I’m a soldier. That’s why I want to keep America strong, so the fight over there doesn’t come over here,” he said in the video. “I understand the sacrifices of our veterans and their families, and that’s why I fight hard every day for our veterans.”

“And that’s why I’m running for the United States Senate. … I’m a healer, that’s who I am, that’s what I do. Join me, and together we can build a stronger Nevada.”

Heck’s campaign to join the upper chamber promises to be one of the most closely watched of the 2016 election cycle. As Republicans come off a successful 2014 midterm election that saw several veterans take seats as GOP senators, they have continued to push national security as a central issue for 2016, when they will face  many more tough reelection races across the country and a continued demographic disadvantage to Democrats.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who faces his own tough reelection bid in 2016, welcomed Heck’s candidacy on Monday, tweeting, “Excellent new candidate Dr. Joe @Heck4Nevada for Harry Reid's #NVSen seat- #Army reservist & #Iraq vet, learn more:”

Heck told Defense One at the end of May he believes it’s “critically important” for more veterans to run for public office; Congress currently includes an all-time low of 101 .

“Not that you shouldn’t be elected if you’ve never served,” he said. “But to have folks that actually have lived this fight there to help shape and mold the debate and conversation, I think it’s critically important.”

As Heck seeks to join a Senate that last year confirmed him as a brigadier general, he brings with him his experience as chairman of two key House defense subcommittees, including the military personnel subcommittee, where’s he’s been a major part of a proposal to overhaul military retirement that is being debated in the conference of the annual defense authorization bill. But he also brings his electoral record as a three-term congressman from a swing district in a swing state.

With the official backing of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and Republican Party, which lobbied hard for him to run, Heck will likely face Democratic candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general who, if elected, would be the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Nevada is 27.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent Census data. It has nearly 227,000 veterans.

Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has backed Cortez Masto, contrasted her and Heck’s representation of Nevada.

“Congressman Heck has spent his time in Washington catering to insurance companies, big banks and Washington special interests instead of Nevada families and he will struggle to explain his anti-middle class record throughout the campaign,” Barasky told Defense One. “Democrats have a strong candidate in Catherine Cortez Masto who’s won statewide twice before and has spent her career protecting everyday Nevadans and fighting for their interests.”

Awareness of this challenge was clear in Heck’s announcement, in which he focused less on his military experience and repeatedly invoked his immigrant family’s struggles — even its reliance on union protections, social services and Medicare, typically an anathema to anti-Big Government Republicans — to relate to voters hit harder by the recession than almost any in the country.

“As a husband and a father, I want my family, and every Nevada family, to live in peace, prosperity, and security,” Heck said. “Like my immigrant grandparents coming to America, most Nevadans came here for a new start, better life and more opportunity. We turned the desert into a place of new beginnings.”